Published Sep 01, 2004For a festival that had been on a roll in the years leading up to its 20th anniversary last year, this edition's line-up appeared underwhelming, with few marquee names and the most exciting acts being ones that come through town every few months. This only meant that for the first time in years, Hillside was more about the overall experience, not individual acts; it's not something that's easy to convey in print, nor to convince newcomers to shell out $60 to 80 dollars for a weekend pass. And many of the best moments are unofficial, like the late-night volunteers' party that featured a rollicking and well-sauced folk jam with BC's the Bills and Quebec's Le Vent du Nord. But aside from the family-friendly, ultra-laidback oasis that is the antithesis of most outdoor festival experiences, there were plenty of surprises. Three of them were from the amorphous "world music" niche: the joyous thunder of Maracatu Nunca Antes, an Afro-Brazilian drum troupe from Toronto; the silky sounds of kora player Mansa Sissoko from Mali; and Abdullah Chhadeh from Syria, who played a Middle Eastern zither called the Qanun and whose band, Nara, shone in a captivating workshop with Quebecois cellist Jorane. For the rock crowd, there was only one band on everyone's lips: Montreal's Arcade Fire, who also showed off their improv theatre skills in a workshop with the no-show Unicorns, enlisting Jenny Mitchell from the Barmitzvah Brothers in their place for a hilarious duet. The other big buzz of the festival went to Geoff Berner, Vancouver's vastly underrated solo accordion singer/songwriter who popped up in nearly every workshop and whose Sunday afternoon set had one of the most attentive audiences of the weekend hanging on his every lyric and political digression; he encored with a classy version of Carolyn Mark's "Edmonton." Local Guelph songwriter Nathan Coles debuted a powerful electric band anchored by his rich and resonant voice that had even long-time supporters and fans gape-jawed in awe. Ex-Guelph songwriter Nathan Lawr also impressed with his all-star band and some promising new material. Hillside veteran Kinnie Starr brightened what would have been a rote solo set by actually finding a competent beat-boxer from the crowd to help her out. Bedouin Soundclash channelled early Police, while Saturday headliners Pilate merely channelled every post-Radiohead mope rock band already on the radio. Old guy rockers Blackie and the Rodeo Kings closed Sunday night with a classy display of gruff and gorgeous showmanship, embodying the best of Canadian folk rock, from Bruce Cockburn and the Band, right up to "Lean On Your Peers," a bittersweet ode to fading Hamilton punk kings. Even during an off year, the Hillside Festival is still the summer's best bet in Southern Ontario.